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400m and 800m
When Arie Gluck walked into the arena for the opening of the 1952 Olympics, he was announced as an athlete representing “one of the oldest countries, but a brand new state”.
The 22-year-old physical education teacher was competing for Israel, founded just four years previously in May 1948. As a teenager, he had fought in the military for its statehood.
The weight of a new country might have been on his shoulders, but the national champion in the 400m and 800m did not realise the part he had played in its unveiling on the global stage until years later. “We were there to represent Israel and be the first team to go to the Olympics,” says Gluck. “And we did it well. It was after all of that, I realised it was so important… when you are there, you just participate.”
Though he no longer runs, Gluck is a spry 82-year-old living in suburban New Jersey in an airy home filled with mementoes of his time at the Olympics. In a place of prominence above the big-screen television is a framed collage showing this balding, bespectacled man in his prime - jet black hair, athletic and handsome in a white top and black shorts.
Before the squad left for Finland, prime minister David Ben-Gurion asked the 26 young Israelis to change their last names to something that was “pure Hebrew”. Gluck, as he was then, chose “Gill”, which means joy. Known as Arie Gill for the Games, he went on to name his first son Gill in its honour.
Israel’s Olympic programme was so fledgling that the delegation, which included a basketball team, a diver, a shooting team and a track team, was sent to Helsinki via London to be kitted out by the Jewish community there. They could not afford to do it themselves.
When they arrived in Finland, they were shocked to find that they would be fed in a separate kosher dining hall. “To represent the state of Israel, they insisted we keep kosher but none of us did [before],” Gluck says. “We wanted to go with the rest of the athletes and they had better food.”
Officials also took the athletes to the local synagogue and there were parties with other Jewish athletes. They were chastised for flirting with non-Jewish women. This emphasis on Judaism was foreign for Gluck, but not necessarily uncomfortable.
The ceremonial raising of the Israeli flag was one of the most poignant reminders of what his homeland stood for. Jewish athletes of all nationalities stood around as the Finnish army played the Israeli national anthem. It was the first time that many of them had seen an Israeli flag in person. Several cried at the sight, but Gluck “thought it was normal”.
After competing in two races, he finished back of the pack in both. “Put it this way, I was not last, I beat another country,” he says. Israel would not win an Olympic medal until 1992.
The scene before his race was particularly memorable. “In the running of the 800m, there was a German and at that time Israel and Germany didn’t talk,” Gluck says. “We had been told not to shake hands with the Germans or anything. The Germans were told the opposite, so he came to hug me. In Israel, it was all over the papers that Arie had hugged a German.”
At the time he didn’t know what to do, so he stood there and did not hug him back. But a few years later, he encountered the same athlete at a competition in Spain. This time, they talked.